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April | 2011


Courageous Leadership

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Courageous Leadership

The Courage to Ask for Help

While the human tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami are almost too big to grasp, the resulting events of the nuclear disaster continued to be played out in front of us each day. As we waited for the situation to get under control, we heard reports of the safety zone being expanded, crops and milk being affected, and the opinions of experts from nuclear engineers to environmental activists. The people in charge didn’t seem to know what to do, and according to the reports, don’t seem to be asking for help.

On the ABC Saturday morning news broadcast a couple of weeks ago, it was reported that an official of the Tokyo Electric Power company apologized to workers who suffered radiation burns while working to repair the Fukushima Dia-ichi plant. Amazingly enough, these workers suffered these burns because water rose above the tops of their shoes. One would have thought they would have procedures to deal with rising water.

In the same story, renowned nuclear physicist Michio Kaku was unequivocal about his reaction to the ongoing management of this nuclear disaster. He stated that if he had the ear of the Prime Minister of Japan, he would advise him to completely remove Tokyo Electric from the management of the crisis. Instead he’d bring in an international team of the world’s best nuclear physicists and engineers with the authority to engage the Japanese military to help oversee the operations. While a government edict may wind up being the next step, one might wonder why the leadership of Tokyo Electric did not ask for help themselves.

There is nothing more difficult for a CEO than to ask for help. Leaders may be operating from the notion that asking for help is a “sign of weakness”. I’ve heard comments such as, “I don’t want my staff to think I don’t know what to do,” or “As the leader, I’m supposed to have the answers.” Such reasoning may interfere with or delay a leader’s reaching out to others and asking for help.

In my current work with a client, Deborah, who had recently been appointed to a new leadership position in her company, I recommended that she establish a 60 day work plan. Included in that plan was the opportunity to meet with every key person in the organization — from her line staff to her CEO, and to do so in what I call “full listening mode.” Her approach to these interviews is focused on inquiry and not investigation as she is asking her team and others in the organization to help her learn all she can about the organization.

We’ve developed a set of “smart questions” that she will use to ideas among her staff and colleagues and to engage with them in looking at how and why things get done in a certain way. Some of her questions include:

  • Who is your primary customer? And how do you allocate resources to them?
  • Describe what you do and why do we do it that way? How can it be improved?
  • What works best in your area? What opportunities are there to build on that expertise?
  • What are the critical performance metrics you use to track progress?

These question are helping Deborah to better understand how her staff and the organization function. At the same time she is demonstrating that it's okay for an executive to ask for assistance. In concluding her interviews, Deborah is asking her staff the most important question of all, "How can I help you?"

Asking smart questions and knowing when and who to turn to for help is a big part of staying ahead of the curve. While our corporate troubles will hopefully never be on the scale of the Tokyo Electric Company's, we can't assume that our failure to plan or respond appropriately couldn't lead to dire consequences for our organization. When it comes time to ask for assistance keep three things in mind:

  1. Begin with what you know. Do your research and report your findings.
  2. State the direction you think should be taken. Share your thinking about next steps.
  3. Ask for specific help in the form of tools, resources and/or people.


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TED Talks

There are over 900 Ted Talks available for viewing and I'm always amazed by my good luck in finding just the right one to share. This month, Mark Bezos, a volunteer firefighter and Development Officer for Robin Hood, a poverty fighting organization shares about how easy it is and how satisfying it can be to respond to someone's request for help. http://www.ted.com/talks/mark_bezos_a_life_lesson_from_a_volunteer_firefighter.html


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The Health Care Corner

Your Stress Resilience Test

During the recent financial crises, the federal government subjected banks to a fiscal "stress test." It required bankers to conduct a scenario analysis of how well they would function under unfavorable economic conditions. These might include unemployment at 10.5% or home prices dropping 25% or if economic growth dropped to a negative 3%. The question is what will happen to the bank's balance sheets if they had increased defaults from mortgages, car loans, or credit cards related to these larger economic forces. The results of the "stress test" helped regulators and the banks determine whether their financial reserves placed them on firm or soft footing.

What would it be like if we subjected ourselves, (our teams and our organizations) to such "stress testing" to see how well we would manage our health, family, and work under adverse conditions? Weeks of 12 hour work days, constantly shifting work priorities, teenage kids getting into trouble, aging parents who require more time and attention are somewhat likely events and conditions. The results of these stress tests would probably show that we have limits to how much physical, intellectual and emotional stress you could handle. And when you go beyond those stress points we may experience poor sleep, grouchiness, fatigue, and loss of concentration.

Looking at the key components of stress resilience…Building Immunity, Navigating Stress and Bouncing Back, we can identify points of intervention where we can improve our resilience. We can build immunity by carefully evaluating the work demands and requirements with members of our work teams. We can navigate through stressful situations by reaching out to others, (a child's teacher, an elder's neighbor, a community agency) so that we can bounce back when the stresses are gone. Part of increasing your ability to bounce back could be allowing yourself a nap this weekend and/or a movie with friends.


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